If You Plan on Eating at Caribbean Hot Pot Restaurant, You Had Better Know the Rules
Get a behind the scenes look at Caribbean Hot Pot by checking out our Cafe slideshow.
At Caribbean Hot Pot Restaurant, you must follow the rules. You want fish for dinner? Sorry, you should have called ahead and ordered it. You can't just place a fish order, because it takes 30 or 40 minutes to cook. Don't you know that? You want curry cooked right before your eyes? Not gonna happen. The jerk chicken, curried goat, oxtails and other offerings aren't made to order. They're cooked earlier in the day and spooned out of stew pots when they're requested. If that's a problem, you don't have to eat it. You want to try a breakfast dish for lunch or dinner? If there's some left over, it can be arranged, but it might be a negotiation, and both parties might end up displeased with the deal. Oh, and don't wander into the joint less than an hour before it closes, because by 7 p.m., the staff seems distracted and ready to go home.
The restaurant opened in 2011 to mixed reviews from the public, which is sometimes put off by the regulations owner Cliff Dalling imposes on unwitting diners. Dalling seems less concerned with pleasantries or creating a charming dining atmosphere than with making good food and running a tight ship. He brought his family recipes straight from the island of Jamaica to Houston, where he cooks up traditional Caribbean food out of the tiny green and yellow restaurant in a strip center near Spring. The location is unassuming, and unless you knew it was there, you'd never think to look for a killer Caribbean restaurant among the doctors' offices, car lots and sketchy nightclubs, but there it is.
The restaurant itself isn't anything fancy. It's decked out in the vibrant colors of the Jamaican flag, and seating is limited to a few plastic tables and booths that are clean but not spotless. There's a table in front with ads and business cards from God knows where next to a fake plant meant to give diners an island feel. Or maybe just to fill space.
Every time I ate at Caribbean Hot Pot, the music playing over the speakers was a Jamaican twist on soft rock classics such as Dolly Parton's hit "I Will Always Love You" accompanied by a marimba and bongo drums. Later, when I heard "Knocking on Heaven's Door" being sung in a Jamaican accent, I snorted into my grapefruit Ting soda.
Ting is just one of the traditional Jamaican drinks available at Caribbean Hot Pot, and the variety of odd-flavored sodas and juices is exciting for someone like me who's never seen the likes of Irish Moss, a peanut puree juice drink, or Baba Roots, the most popular herbal energy drink in Jamaica. The best is the DG Genuine Jamaican Ginger Beer, which is spicier and less sweet than most ginger beers and a refreshing complement to the heat of the jerk chicken or curry.
When I arrived at Caribbean Hot Pot for the first time, I didn't really know what to order other than my beloved ginger beer, so I told Dalling to hook me up with some traditional Jamaican food. He seemed confused and tired, but he obliged, bringing me jerk chicken, curried goat and oxtails with a side order of extra plantains.
The jerk chicken is by far the best dish at Caribbean Hot Pot. The mixture of spices blends together almost seamlessly, so even the most sophisticated palate can't entirely distinguish one spice from another. The combination is vaguely reminiscent of pumpkin pie, but then the heat and the salt come through, and the connotations change entirely. The crispy charred chicken skin drips with burned spices and juice that's bursting through to the surface of the meat after it's cooked slowly for hours on a pimento wood grill. When the tender chicken cuts the heat of the spices, all the flavors muddle anew until there's no single distinctive flavor except chicken. Perfectly cooked chicken perfectly complemented by a recipe that traveled across the ocean from Africa to the shores of Jamaica, where the natives made it their own.
The curried goat was an unexpected offering, because I was unaware of the influence Indian cuisine had on Jamaican food. The Jamaican version is similar to Indian curry but with more allspice, a favorite spice of the island, and Scotch bonnet peppers, found mostly in the Caribbean and the main source of heat in island cooking. Goat curry takes a long time to cook, as do many other Jamaican stews, which is why very few items on the menu are made to order. All the meat dishes use bone-in meat that's stewed long enough that it will eventually fall off the bone with minimal prodding.
Oxtails are more bone than meat, so they need even more time to cook, but the tender muscle marbled with fat and the marrow-filled bones give the stew a rich, gamey flavor accented, of course, by allspice, thyme and no small pinch of Scotch bonnet peppers. Jamaican stews use ample amounts of carrots and onions as well, so all of them are reminiscent of a good American beef stew, only with an extra kick from the peppers and allspice.
All three meals are served on a platter with a generous helping of Jamaican rice and peas (which are actually kidney beans) and cabbage slaw topped with caramelized plantains. It's tempting to try the meat and forgo the other offerings on the plate, but that would be a mistake. There's nothing superfluous about any of it. The beans and rice are no starchy, sticky mess whose primary purpose is to cut the heat of the spices. They're solid and chewy and simply yet effectively seasoned. Combined with the vinegary steamed cabbage, they bring the meal into focus and provide a more complete picture of cuisine on the island of Jamaica, where meat is cured with intense spices and coconut milk finds its way into everything from curry to rice.
Though both the curry and oxtails were flavorful and complex, the servings seemed too small. I'm not a huge eater, so I thought the medium-size portion would be more food than I needed, but both my friend and I found ourselves picking around the leftover bones and veggies in search of more meat. If you're extra hungry, pay a few dollars more for the large portion and maybe order a side dish or two.
The plantains were another standout part of the meal, though I'm a fan of them in just about any form. These were fresh plantains that had been caramelized until they were browned and crispy on the outside but still soft and banana-y on the inside. In Jamaica they're a side dish, meant to be consumed with dinner. I would have loved a bowl of sweet, starchy golden plantains with a big ol' scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I think that would probably be frowned upon.
A few other dishes were lackluster: Beef patties, like empanadas but with a pastry tinted yellow with egg yolks and turmeric, were underwhelming and tasted like they'd been sitting out in the case all day (which, if the rest of the food prep is any indication, they probably had). Callaloo and saltfish, a breakfast dish reminiscent of collard greens and salty cod, is interesting but overly salty and vinegary. Dessert options include factory-made sweet breads that looked like fruitcakes. I skipped those altogether.
In addition to the jerk chicken, the most impressive menu offering — when I had the presence of mind to call ahead and order it — was the escovitch fish, a traditional weekend breakfast item introduced to Jamaica by Spanish settlers. It's a whole red snapper soaked in citrus juice and seasoned with a generous helping of salt and pepper, then pan-fried. It's served with escovitch sauce, a watery mix of vinegar, carrots, onions, allspice berries and peppercorns that's intended to be drizzled across the top of the fish.
Why this dish takes 30 to 40 minutes to prepare, I don't know. But it's definitely worth it to call ahead and order because few other items on the menu will transport you to the beaches of Jamaica quite like a whole fried fish with a salty crust and dense, flaky meat. The employees might complain a bit about having to prepare it, but don't let that discourage you. They're on island time, where everything moves slowly and life is a constant state of vacation. The only problem with that attitude is that Caribbean Hot Pot Restaurant happens to be in Houston, not Jamaica.
The restaurant business places a lot of emphasis on customer service, and though Dalling and his staff are always genial, they won't go out of their way for you. That can be off-putting to those who are accustomed to being treated like royalty when they dine, but it makes for a more authentically Caribbean dining experience.
Me? I just want a delicious plate of crispy, spicy jerk chicken that I'm free to eat without shooing away a waiter trying to refill my water glass every five minutes. And that's what you get at Caribbean Hot Pot Restaurant. The employees have Red Stripe to drink and waves to catch and ocean breezes to enjoy. And if you happen to get a good meal in between all the relaxation and daydreaming about paradise, you'll be one happy explorer.
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